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Savoring Sandy Hook's Pristine History

Reflections on how Sandy Hook has remained a treasured natural habitat, unsullied by development

Sandy Hook has long been a paradise for migratory birds and birders, not to mention history and pristine shorelines.

According to the National Park Service (NPS), the federal arm that manages Sandy Hook, there are more than 300 species of birds that migrate there during the spring and summer.

But it is also the home of Fort Hancock, the defunct U. S. Army post that is at the northern end of the seven-mile-long peninsula. The Army installation was used for many years, until it was moved in 1919 to Aberdeen, Maryland.

But the Nike station is still intact, although most of the buildings are off limits due to their hazardous condition. The exception is Battery Gunnison, which is being restored by volunteers. In addition, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse, the oldest in the United States, is open for visitors during the summer.

One hundred years ago, eight years before the Army installation was decommissioned, a man named Melvin A. Rice, of Atlantic Highlands, received six partridges from the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife to be released in the woods of his locality. After an inquiry, he received approval to free the birds in the woods on Sandy Hook, which is actually part of Middletown Township.

According to an article in the Red Bank Register dated April 1911, he thought it would be a good habitat because part of the peninsula is covered with a heavy and thick growth of trees, where partridge berries and other food for birds are plentiful. In addition, the article notes, "the low lands on the Hook provide an inexhaustible supply of fiddler crabs and other small crustaceans, while insects of all kinds abound. As no gunning is allowed on the Hook, the partridges will be unmolested."

The article, which talks about the environment on the Hook, could have been written today. So much of the peninsula is still the same. "The woods on Sandy Hook have long been known as one of the finest retreats for birds in Monmouth County or in the state," the Register story said. "The cover is dense, and with gunning absolutely prohibited birds of many varieties are numerous. Thirty and forty years ago Sandy Hook was the haunt of several varieties of birds which rarely came this far north.”

So, think about it. We know the land on Sandy Hook has remained a habitat for migrating birds for at least 140 years. And we can be reasonably sure, that it has been in the same pristine state for a long time, long before we came along with a plan to ruin things. I think that is quite amazing in the most populated state in the country.

The 100-year-old article notes that the late Dr. Samuel Lockwood of Freehold was a frequenter of the woods and swamps on the Hook in the bird season, where one year, after a prolonged search, he found several nests of mocking birds.

"This is the furthest north that these birds have ever been known to nest," the story said. "It is possible that some of these birds will be found on the Hook in the summer season, but since Dr. Lockwood's death Monmouth County has had no such enthusiastic naturalist."

I don’t know what happened to the partridges that were introduced to the Hook one hundred years ago, but, according to the Audubon Society and the NPS, the Hook is a home for many varieties of flora and fauna; most notably, the peninsula is home to osprey, piping plovers and over 300 additional species of feathered friends.

The NPS works to provide safe nesting sites for the birds. In addition, the park service provides a variety of environmental activities and birding tours led by local bird experts. When I was out there last weekend, there was a tour starting with about a dozen people in attendance.

One of the harebrained schemes hatched over the last decade was a plan to privatize the officer’s houses at Fort Hancock. Fortunately for the people who want to preserve Fort Hancock, the developer, who wanted to commercialize the historic site, couldn’t come up with the money. 

So, for now, the Sandy Hook Foundation is trying to work with the National Park Service (NPS) to preserve the buildings within Fort Hancock. Right now, there are nine tenants within Fort Hancock. They include: American Littoral Society, Brookdale Community College, Clean Ocean Action, Marine Academy of Science and Technology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, NJ Audubon Society, NJ Sea Grant Consortium, Rutgers University and the Sandy Hook Child Care Center. All have agreements and pay fees to the NPS.  Some, like Brookdale, have been there for over 30 years, and most limit access to special events.

I took an oceanography class, through Brookdale, at the Hook about 30 years ago. It was very interesting and a lot of fun. At one point, we were asked to collect water samples at both the oceanside and bayside. I was warned to be careful where I drove my car because some of the hard packed dirt roads turn into sand.

Unfortunately, I didn’t heed the warning, took a dirt road that turned into sand and got stuck. I had to walk back to the classroom and admit that I was stuck in the soft, white sand that is characteristic of the beaches on the ocean side of the Hook.

But I did get my samples: one in Horseshoe Cove and one in a deserted area on the ocean side. Now, years later, I don’t remember what I learned about the water, but I do have a sensory memory of being a kind of explorer in an uncorrupted land. To me, the fact that Sandy Hook and Fort Hancock are not commercial is as it should be.

We have enough beaches between the Hook and Island Beach State Park that offer all of the schlock needed by beach goers. The fact that there are no gift shops, restaurants (except for the Sea Gull's Nest in one of the parking lots), motels, gas stations, commercial businesses of any kind, is what makes the place magical.

As a lover of Sandy Hook and someone who has passed officer’s row many times over the years, I have often thought something should be done with those houses. It seemed like such a waste, especially since they face one of them most beautiful views anywhere. But I never imagined that they would become private property at the mercy of a developer.  

I went out there recently and had a complete turn around in my thinking. I say now, let them decay unless Gateway National Recreation Area, of which Sandy Hook is one component, can come up with restoration funding, or a nonprofit comes along with deep pockets and is willing to repair and preserve them for the public good.

The fact that they are abandoned just makes them that much more intriguing — almost like our own version of the ruins that can be found in Mexico, Europe or Asia. Maybe it’s right that they quietly look out over that vista so that our imaginations can soar.

When I walked past them last weekend, a park ranger was sitting on one of the porches silently reflecting on the view. I should have asked him what he thought should be done with those buildings. Oh well, another missed opportunity, but a relatively minor one. Privatizing the buildings at Fort Hancock would be a major missed opportunity to preserve a quiet place in this noisy, overcrowded part of the world.

Besides being a nature lover, I have other connections to Gateway National Recreation Area. I almost drowned in Jamaica Bay, which is on the New York side of the recreation area, when I was about ten years old. In addition, my mother’s ashes were scattered in the ocean off the Rockaways about 10 years ago. I figure right about now she is rounding the Hook heading for open water.

It is wonderful when you can learn something new about a time long past. I learned, while researching for this article, that the Hook was discovered by the famous sea captain Henry Hudson in the early 1600’s and was a convenient anchorage for ships before proceeding into Upper New York Harbor.

I guess I never thought about it being discovered because it has always been there. I learned something else about Sandy Hook. It is plagued with two unpleasant realities; mosquitoes and the poison ivy that grows as low shrubs, vines on the larger trees, and as dense stands that tower over six feet high.

Despite those itchy problems, I hope the Hook and all of its history will continue to be there just as it is — uncorrupted by commerce and home to all things great and small.

John de la Parra August 27, 2012 at 06:21 PM
Hate to be a stickler, but Sandy Hook Lighthouse is not "the oldest in the world." A search reveals "The oldest working lighthouse in the world is at La Coruña in NW Spain, near the town of Ferol. A lighthouse has been on this site since the time of the Roman emperor Trajan." There are older lighthouses that are no longer working. However, "The oldest standing masonry tower in the U.S. is Sandy Hook Lighthouse (1764) in New Jersey." and "The Boston Light on Little Brewster Island was the first lighthouse built in the United States in 1716. However, it was renovated in 1783 because it was damaged in the Revolutionary War. So, the oldest lighthouse as it was originally constructed is actually the Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey. Both are still in use today, with the Boston Lighthouse being the last manned lighthouse in the U.S."
Michael Megill August 27, 2012 at 07:35 PM
"I hope the Hook and all of its history will continue to be there just as it is — uncorrupted by commerce and home to all things great and small." Agreed, but unfortunately it has be "corrupted" by beach replenishment projects that have dramatically changed Sandy Hook and completely eliminated many sand bars that existed and provided structure for marine life. In addition, sand is now migrating around the tip and covering the mud bottom of the estuaries and eliminating much of the marine life that used it as sanctuary. Don't understand why folks stand idle and allow beach replenishment to continue and not understand the negative impact on our shoreline. The beach is much more than a platform to sunbath on.
JosephGhabourLaw August 28, 2012 at 02:29 PM
Getting there in the summer is indeed tricky. The bikelane over the new route 36 bridge is a nice touch, but I'd rather be on a separate path, with a Jersey barrier protecting me. Sadly, locals agree that summer is usually too busy for enjoying the "Hook", and that spring/summer/fall are the best times.

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